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Learning for landscapes: Insights on stewardship and collaboration

Jessica Cockburn is a graduate student at Rhodes University and is affiliated with the Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS). SAPECS is linked to the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), a global research project of Future Earth.

This blog was adapted from an original version published on the SAPECS website. You can read that version here.

A group of leaders in sustainability converged this February at The Knoll, a small farm outside the village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The goal was for us to connect with and learn from each other, exploring initiatives in South Africa that seek to restore landscapes in collaborative ways.

Workshop participants take part in a small group exercise. Photo: Dieter Van den Broeck

Participants in this workshop came from different corners of South Africa to find common ground: We came the way from the West Coast where fynbos vegetation, commercial potato farmers and estuaries flourish; all the way from the Marico Bosveld, a thorny country with precious water resources, fiercely proud locals and environmental impacts from mining; all the way from the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal, home to hard-working farmers and agricultural landscapes covered in plantation forestry and dairy operations; and all the way from pastoral grasslands where herders care for cattle, which provide livelihoods and socio-cultural identity.

We came from all different walks of life and work: local non-governmental organisations working with farming communities, leaders from large national and international non-governmental organisations and academics. This workshop contributed to a Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on Collaborative Governance and Management.

In this farm setting, it was surprisingly easy to find common ground. We were all committed to the focus of the workshop, which was “Research and Learning for Connected Landscapes,” and we worked together to ponder two important questions: What are the enablers and barriers of stewardship at the local level? What are the processes that support collaboration for stewardship in multifunctional landscapes?

These are the key research questions that I am exploring in my Ph.D. My research takes a transdisciplinary approach, which means that I work across social and ecological disciplines and co-produce knowledge in partnership with academics and practitioners working on sustainable agriculture initiatives in farming communities across South Africa.

This "map of stories" shows the location of six case studies of stewardship projects. Below, a "learning jar" holds stories and artefacts from these case studies. Photo: Jessica Cockburn

Before the workshop, I conducted a broad survey across the country to identify suitable case studies of landscape stewardship. We selected and visited six sites where I got to know the diverse social-ecological contexts in which the projects are embedded. We also gathered stories of their work, written on note cards, along with other artefacts like stones, twigs, campaigns stickers and pamphlets. We kept these in a “Learning Jar.”

The six projects selected as case studies are:

  1. Baviaanskloof-Kouga-Krom Landscapes Project (Living Lands)
  2. Marico River Catchment Conservation Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
  3. uMzimvubu Catchment Restoration Project of UCPP (uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme)
  4. Verlorenvlei Protected Areas Project (BirdLife South Africa & Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa)
  5. World Wildlife Fund Grasslands Programme (WWF-South Africa)
  6. World Wildlife Fund Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF-South Africa)

The workshop was designed with two primary objectives in mind:

  1. Through innovative facilitation methodologies, to create an inspiring opportunity for participants to share lessons for building collaboration for stewardship, and build new networks.
  2. To collect insights and co-generate knowledge on collaboration and stewardship in landscape initiatives.

The approach was based on U-Tools, a set of tools developed by the Presencing Institute that foster reflection and included activities like dialogue walks, learning journeys, case clinics and guided “u-journalling.” We sought to build a team spirit among participants through deep listening and sharing of personal experiences and to provide opportunities for self-reflection.

Lessons learned

Through this process, we learned that we were glad to have found the other participants: Each project leader is pushing the boundaries and innovating, working against a multitude of barriers to bring about change on the ground for improved stewardship. It can be lonely out there. There was a palpable sense of comfort, relief and renewed energy in finding like-minded people, feeling free to express and share without having to explain too much, and feeling part of a “tribe.”

A participant adds to a "map of learning," which captures lessons learned during the workshop. Photo: Jessica Cockburn

What lessons did we learn about building collaboration?

  • that it takes time (at least 10 years), is resource intensive and requires particular skills and tools;
  • that it may not always be necessary: Localised, tangible stewardship actions and successes with individual farmers may be as important as building larger collaborations;
  • that it can be extremely difficult and require personal sacrifices and that facilitators at the coalface need support systems;
  • that non-governmental organisations need to be catalysts and orchestrators of collaboration, but unless local communities take ownership of stewardship, success will not be sustainable.

What lessons did we learn about enabling stewardship and overcoming barriers to stewardship?

  • that identifying ways of ensuring tangible benefits of stewardship practices to farmers is important but difficult;
  • that making links to market enablers and economic incentives can drive behaviour change and enable stewardship;
  • that re-focusing stewardship on stewards, recognising their needs and priorities and creating an enabling environment for them to become good stewards, is an important starting point. This might mean doing things that do not seem directly related to the overall conservation outcomes we are striving for.
  • that embedding stewardship facilitators in a landscape, for the long-term, and building meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual understanding is key to bringing about sustainable shifts to collaborative stewardship in multifunctional landscapes.

What now?

The knowledge produced collaboratively during this process will be incorporated into my Ph.D research, and I am in the process of analysing and writing it up. We have developed an online platform to share further lessons, resources and information with the rest of the group in the future.

We all diverged back to our different landscapes, fields of work and research and homes again after the two days. Keeping connected can be difficult, but this may just be the start of a new community of practice. I believe that the inspiration, energy and new connections that were made during the first gathering of this “young tribe” may have unexpected outcomes far into the future.

How are you building collaboration for stewardship in South Africa? How are you using innovative methodologies for knowledge co-production?

Connect with me on Twitter @jess_cockburn or drop me an email… let’s start a conversation to keep learning for landscapes: You can find my website here.